The Telluride community lost one of its most beloved characters Monday, June 25, when Melissa “Lissa” Margetts passed away. She was 60. Margetts was born Sept. 3, 1957, in Vallejo, California, and moved to Telluride as a child. Her father, Dr. Gardiner Pier, was the only town doctor and, by default, the town veterinarian. Her parents founded the Telluride Mountain Center. From childhood, Margetts shared a strong connection with animals and her community.
Margetts’ “friend in crime” for over 20 years, Susannah Smith, described Margetts’ intimate connection with wildlife in a recent interview with the Daily Planet.
“She was an animal whisperer. She could work with almost any animal,” Smith said.
Margetts connected with animals on a deep level. “She was half wild and not to be contained, just like the animals she worked with,” Smith added.
Her son, Jake Burns, said his mother was “a quintessentially Telluride figure.”
After working for several large corporations in Minnesota, Margetts decided to return to her mountain community, where she founded the Rocky Mountain Ark Wildlife Rehabilitation Center on Wilson Mesa. The Ark was an internationally known institution that sheltered and rehabilitated injured animals on a 14-acre preserve. For animals that were not able to return to the wild, the Ark became a permanent home. At its peak, the Rocky Mountain Ark housed 165 animals.
“She was a walking encyclopedia on wildlife. She had so many certifications that we couldn’t find anyone to replace her when I was trying to help her sell it, or hand it over,” Smith said.
In 2006, Margetts retired from the Ark. Since no suitable candidate could be found to replace her, Margetts disbanded the Ark. At the time of its closure, the organization had sheltered and discharged more than 2,000 animals, and approximately 100,000 children had benefited from Margetts’ educational programs.
Upon her retirement, Margetts travelled to Africa to fight poaching. She then returned to Telluride, where she bred King Shepherd dogs for the past two years. Margetts had a strong affinity for this breed, beginning with her King Shepherd Mojo “her protector,” according to Smith.
Margetts taught at the Telluride Academy and was often a guest lecturer at schools across Colorado. She was the first to introduce animals into Telluride’s schools, creating what Telluride Academy founder Wendy Brooks called “the highest level of coexistence.”
Whenever Margetts was preparing to release a rehabilitated animal from the Ark, she would invite Brooks to bring children from the Telluride Academy to watch. As part of the academy’s programming, kids also were responsible for catching crawdads to feed to Margetts’ river otters at her pond.
Brooks said that she and Margetts were “soul sisters on the path of educating kids.” She expressed her deep gratitude for nearly 30 years that Margetts spent educating Telluride’s youth.
Margetts also was a ski instructor for over 25 years, where she would bring local wildlife, including otters and porcupines, to lead environmental preservation and education programs. Margetts also created a “pet library,” where local children could check a pet out for a few weeks to prove to their parents that they were responsible enough to have an animal of their own.
Above all, Margetts valued educating children about wildlife and environmental issues.
“She was focused on the education of kids around here and bringing stewardship of nature to the next generation,” Burns said.
To Margetts, stewardship was “not just having a respect for nature, but caring for it.” She was known for taking an active role in any fight against wildlife injustices and always took initiatives into her own hands.
“She was unique and a formidable force to contend with,” Smith said.
After Hurricane Katrina, Margetts drove an outfitted ambulance down to New Orleans to rescue stranded dogs with fellow Telluride resident Susan Kerr. Rico had given Margetts the ambulance, which she eventually donated to the City of New Orleans.
With her beloved horse Cabo, Margetts also completed the Tevis Cup Ride five times, including once with a broken leg. The Tevis is a 100-mile endurance horse race from Tahoe city to Auburn, California, that riders must complete within a 24-hour window. It is known as the world’s most challenging and technical equestrian endurance race
For over 20 years, Margetts’ presence around town was intrinsically linked with Ruby, her pet mountain lion. Margetts adopted Ruby when the cub was just 10 days old — rescued from a fur farm in Iowa. Ruby was the first mascot for the Denver Nuggets and appeared in National Geographic. Locals and celebrities, including Jimmy Stewart, Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise, shared ice cream cones with Ruby. Margetts brought Ruby to schools around Colorado to teach children how to act if they encountered a mountain lion while hiking or outside adventuring.
Ruby was a “beloved local celebrity” who lived to be 23, setting the world longevity record for her species. The cat was known for eating 30 pounds of raw meat per day and finishing her meal with a Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream cone.
Margetts obtained much of this meat from state roadkill. Whenever roadkill was reported nearby, Margetts would drive down the mountain to pick up dead deer in order to feed Ruby and the wolves at Ark.
“I don’t think I’ve ever known a woman capable of doing the things that she did physically, even when she was injured,” Smith said. “She was a mountain woman. She was a total badass.”
In 2004, the Telluride community honored Margetts by giving her the second annual Telluride Foundation’s Citizen of the Year award. Margetts was recognized for her contributions to the community’s wildlife education programs.
Smith emphasized Margetts’ influence in the community, “She touched so many people’s lives. She had no idea. She was admired by many people. She was, like I said, fearless. She was complicated. And she was one of my best friends. … So many of us don’t know how much we’re loved. We all need to let each other know.”
Margetts has “morphed into a part of Telluride history,” said Brooks. She will be remembered for her compassion, devotion to the defense of the natural world and for protecting those less fortunate.
“She was an avid defender of the helpless and the vulnerable,” Smith said.
Memorial services are being planned. Any questions can be directed to Burns at 970-729-8919.
Clarification: In the Sunday Daily Planet print edition, this story includes making donations to the Second Chance Humane Society. Instead, the family would like donations to go to the Jane Goodall Institute, 1595 Spring Hill Rd., Suite 550, Vienna, Virginia, 22182.
Update: Melissa Jan Toney Margetts was born in Vallejo, California, on Sept. 3, 1957, to John and Maxine Toney. She is survived by her father Jon Toney, a surveyor for many years in California’s Bay Area who now resides in Grants Pass, Oregon; mother Maxine “Sammie” Evans of Montrose; sister Michele Marie Wilby of the United Kingdom; half-brother Joseph Evans of Montrose and son Jake Burns of Boulder. The original story did not include this information.